GOTY 2013: Badass Girls Need Not Apply
Game developer Brianna Wu explains why women remain a small part of the voting for 2013's best video game.
Corrections and clarifications appended. A follow-up story explores the feedback to this one.
If there was a single moment that best illustrated my frustration with male-dominated video-game journalism, it happened on December 23 while I listened to the Giant Bomb podcast discuss the best games of 2013.
While voting for “Biggest Surprise Game of 2013,” Brad Shoemaker and Jeff Gerstmann have the following exchange about 2013’s Tomb Raider — a reboot of the popular series featuring gaming icon Lara Croft:
Shoemaker: “I don’t know that I’m feeling Tomb Raider on this.
Gerstmann: “[I]t’s just, what is this quick-time event bullshit? To me, out of the gate, this game seemed lame.”
The rest of the Giant Bomb staff offer up a few weak sentences of protest, but Gerstmann says with finality. “It probably doesn’t need to be here.” And the discussion moved on. (See a clarification at the end of this article.)
I found this exchange exasperating. I was surprised by Tomb Raider. Lara Croft started her gaming career in 1996 as a ridiculously large-breasted sex symbol, a trend that largely continued for the next eight sequels as Croft’s main character traits were a butt, breasts, and figure meticulously sculpted to appeal to the male gaze. However, the 2013 reboot, written largely by Rhianna Pratchett, changed everything.
I would point to 2013’s Lara Croft as one of the most empowered, well-written, kick-ass women in all of video-game history. 2013 Lara Croft is a teenage girl who grows into a leader and singlehandedly saves her team after their boat crashes on an island. She was still gorgeous, but so much more real and relatable.
2013 Lara Croft stands up to save her female friend Samantha when others are willing to let her die. 2013 Lara Croft’s voice trembles as she’s forced to kill to save her life. When 2013’s Lara Croft dies, the game pulls no punches because she’s a woman. You see her brutally stabbed, shot, and impaled.
2013 Tomb Raider isn’t just a very good game, it’s a historically important one. It’s a game that shows the vastly improved product possible when including women in the process of writing women. It’s a game that shows games are flat out better when female characters are people and not sex objects.
And I know from 28 years of watching the industry that no one will pay serious attention to 2013 Tomb Raider as a game-of-the-year (GOTY) contender, no matter the site or publication. In an industry where men fund the games, develop the games, publish the games, and—most importantly here—review the games, observations like these simply go unheard.
Giant Bomb’s cast
No video-game site represents boys-only gaming more than Giant Bomb. The popular site, started by former Gamespot staffers, largely eschews reviews, previews, and industry news. Instead, it is an unabashed celebration of the fun of gaming. The small, all-male crew of Giant Bomb plays what it wants, covers what it wants, frequently shoots unedited video of game playing sessions, and offers unabashed opinions straight from its editors.
The journalists of Giant Bomb are immensely likable industry veterans, who are worth listening to and who have well-informed opinions. Former Gamespot editorial director Gerstmann started Giant Bomb in protest against commercial advertisers attempting to influence the score of 2007’s Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, a stand that gave him immense credibility as a game journalist.
But their consciousness on why games like 2013 Tomb Raider are important remains extremely low, as you might expect from a crowd of men sitting around discussing the games they love.
As head of development at Giant Spacekat (GSK), it’s perfectly understandable why Giant Bomb has an all-male cast. I run what is, to my knowledge, the only full-time gamedev studio with all female employees. When I look to hire people, I look at people I know in the industry whose work I respect and with whom I click. More often than not, it is other women.
But the all-female staff of GSK is an extreme anomaly in the industry. Giant Bomb is, more or less, the norm. In the games press, you get a preponderance of a single opinion: white, male, and straight. There a few outliers here and there.
Giant Bomb is hardly the only industry site or publication to have an all-male crew. IGN’s consistently excellent Podcast Beyond suffers the same severe lack of diversity. Hosts Greg Miller, Brian Altano, Andrew Goldfarb, and Colin Moriarty are the current fixtures on the show. I love Podcast Beyond; some of my best friends are Podcast Beyond listeners who I’ve met and bonded with. Podcast Beyond offers some of the most interesting and entertaining video-game analysis in the industry.
But, as far as I recall and the archives show, it has never had a female host in its six years on the “air,” although women have frequently appeared as guests. That’s six years of conversation and video-game analysis—including six game-of-the-year discussions—without a consistent female voice. As much as I like their work, this is a serious deficit.
Xbox centrist Podcast Unlocked features journalists Ryan McCaffery, Marty Sliva, and Mitch Dyer with an increasingly frequent appearance by Naomi Kyle. (Kyle votes on GOTY at IGN, however.) The third main IGN podcast, Nintendo Voice Chat, has had one female host out of seven in the show’s history: Audrey Drake. Sadly, Drake left IGN in July. (See a correction at the end of this article.)
I’m not afraid of no Ghosts
The discussion of Call of Duty: Ghosts excellently illustrates what happens when women are not represented in the editorial process. COD is one of the most successful video-game franchises, and as such, is generally worthy of consideration in game-of-the-year discussions.
When it was revealed that the Ghosts release would finally allow players to pick a female character, this was an important change — not just because more and more women are active gamers, but because women are finally allowed to fight on the front lines in the American military and therefore qualify for higher ranks of leadership.
A team of four men at IGN gave their analysis of the new feature. “Is your squad going to be all female soldiers?” joked Miller.
“Duh!” exclaimed Damon Hatfield, host of the dating advice podcast Knocking Boots.
“I think a lot of guys are gonna be fooling people!” joked Bobby Amos. I suppose the joke is that fooling men into thinking you’re a woman is the main impetus for wanting to play as a female character.
A later Podcast Unlocked panel, “How Stabbing Women in Call of Duty Makes us Feel,” examined the issue with more insight, despite the sensationalist title. The four-person video conversation does feature a woman on the panel, former Adidas model and IGN on-camera personality Naomi Kyle. Kyle frequently appears in videos such as Cheap, Cool Crazy, where she displays a deep love of gamer culture, frequently acting in skits in which she cosplays.
“I think for me, stabbing women shouldn’t be jarring,” said Kyle. “It shouldn’t be a gendered issue in the first place. It shouldn’t be, is, ‘Is this a guy or a girl?’ We should all be equal.”
“It’s not about equality, it’s not about equal rights,” says Destin Legarie. He continues, “It’s about how stabbing women makes me feel.” This is a sentiment largely echoed by McCaffery and Sliva, even as they consider the matter with genuine interest and compassion.
Might it be that Kyle’s life had given her a perspective that the other members of Podcast Unlocked lacked? While every male editor on the panel had reservations about the inclusion of women in the violent series, Kyle was the lone voice strongly in favor of it. Unfortunately, even as the most prominent woman employed at IGN, Kyle is not an editor, and generally does not evaluate or write about games in her work.
Later in the segment, Sliva says, “I assume Anita Sarkeesian does a video about this at some point. I’d love to know what she thinks.” Sarkeesian, host of the controversial Feminist Frequency, examines video-game tropes and how they affect women. However, other video-game sites besides IGN do have people on staff willing to examine these gendered issues, such as Gamespot’s Carolyn Petit.
She dares to criticize
Petit endured what was undoubtedly the most horrific moment in 2013 for women in the video-game industry, enduring the largest barrage of attacks I’ve ever seen against a games journalist, for her review of Grand Theft Auto V.
Grand Theft Auto V is an extremely strong contender for 2013’s game of the year. In a glowing 2,295-word review, Petit scored the game at 9.0, giving it an editor’s choice and deeming it nearly perfect. She praised GTA V for “raising the bar for open-world mission design in a big way and has one of the most beautiful, lively, diverse and stimulating worlds ever seen in a game.” She praised the controls, and the game design for the heists.
Then Petit spent two paragraphs examining the gender dynamics of the game.
Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny, with ads that equate manhood with sleek sports cars while encouraging women to purchase a fragrance that will make them “smell like a bitch.” Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism. The beauty of cruising in the sun-kissed Los Santos hills while listening to “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood turns sour really quick when a voice comes on the radio that talks about using a woman as a urinal.
The Internet then proceeded to lose its mind.
The review page exploded with comments—ultimately topping 22,000—most of which viciously attacked Petit over her credibility, her gender, and her audacity to even raise the issue. A petition was signed by tens of thousands to get her fired from Gamespot for disrespecting GTA V. Three examples:
Politically muddled and misogynistic. What a f*cking surprise coming from this reviewer. Not even going to read this sh*t.
It’s GTA. Of course it’s misogynistic. F*ck your feelings.
The personal attacks against Carolyn in the comments are so vile, they should rightly give pause to any woman considering a job in the video-game industry. The message here is clear: consider gender in professional criticism and suffer personal consequences.
The Polygon review of Dragon’s Crown is another example of what happens when a female professional journalist dares inject her life experience into a professional review. Dragon’s Crown is a game with ridiculously sexualized characters by anyone’s standards. Want to sell a sword? A nearly naked, ridiculously large-breasted woman hovers in front of you mewing, “What would you like?”
Polygon reviewer Danielle Riendeau called the game a “teenaged boy’s dream: crazy, violent and full of impossibly large breasts.” She continued, “Dragon’s Crown’s serious liberties with female anatomy are distracting. Two player characters — the Amazon and the Sorceress — are explicitly sexualized, with breasts literally bigger than their heads with rear ends to match, and plenty of the screen real estate is dedicated to their respective jiggles and sashays.”
Riendeau was then attacked unmercifully in the 1291 comments that followed for giving the game a 6.5. Typical was this comment by Narit:
It is 100% opinion, and thus shouldn’t have NEARLY this hefty an impact on the score. Make note of it in the article, by all means. But the author seems to have really enjoyed the game itself, but then said “Oh yeah, I don’t like when girls have big tits” and knocked 3 points off the game. That is not reviewing a game, that’s pushing your point of view.
The point of view of a professional game reviewer on a major site, which, I suppose, this commenter thinks is irrelevant. Things got so bad in the comment section that Atlus, publisher of the game, had its press team step in and defend Riendeau’s right to have an opinion on its game.
Playstation editor Colin Moriarty and I hold fiercely divergent political opinions, but I find his approach generally respectful and well-thought through. In a world of two sides screaming at each other, I’ve enjoyed the excellent discussions we’ve had on political issues over the years. But, when it comes to issues of diversity, I encourage Moriarty to widen his perspective.
“I don’t understand why everyone has to be so sensitive and upset about everything. It’s obnoxious.” said Moriarty in a 2011 episode of Game Scoop, referring to a controversy about an IGN article about gay video-game characters.
Hatfield: “[H]ere’s something I believe. You cannot offend someone unless you’re trying to. If offense is not intended, it’s called a misunderstanding.”
The thing is, Colin and Damon, sometimes people get upset because they have information you don’t. It doesn’t make you a bad person; it doesn’t mean you’re sexist; it just means we’ve had different life experiences. And, sometimes, you can offend someone without meaning it.
I have gone to buy a computer, and had the salesperson speak to my husband and not to me, even though I am a professional game developer and my husband has trouble using a printer. I have had men in my department throw a Halo launch party and not invite me, assuming that as a woman I have no interest in games. I have had my professional opinion on server purchases overruled by men that were talking over me in meetings, and then watched those men be fired when the systems they purchased didn’t work.
Those life events inform my experiences and opinion. And, they inform my perspective on 2013 Tomb Raider. And, with respect, if you only have people voting on game of the year from a very singular opinion — generally white, straight and male — it’s missing so much information that it loses its validity.
This doesn’t mean guys can’t have awareness of issues affecting women. And it doesn’t mean women have a singular, monolithic opinion on games or even sexism. Even among my female friends, we have vastly differing opinions about 2013 Tomb Raider. Some of us love Bioshock Infinite; some of us hate it. But more viewpoints need to be represented in discussing games. We need more female games journalists who have a more central part of the dialog.
Sometimes, though, you run into a guy with empathy, who takes multiple points of view into account, not just his own. He might not even think of himself as a feminist. When 2011’s Vanquish came out, former IGN editor Ryan Clements was extremely enthusiastic. Then, in the middle of glowing praise of “watching an enemy explode into a cacophony of pieces” and “feeling entire highways crumble away under your feet,” Clements makes the following offhand remark in his video review.
“I say this game needed more badass girls, but that’s just me.”
The whole time I’d played Vanquish, I’d been annoyed by the lack of women, except for a secretary type that perkily chimed in over my intercom. Clement’s spark of awareness that made him ask, “I wonder if women feel represented here?” — that meant a lot.
Jeff Gerstmann, Brad Shoemaker, Colin Moriarty, Greg Miller, Damon Hatfield, Ryan McCaffery, and Marty Sliva: I love your work. I respect you as journalists. And, if you’re mentioned in this piece, it’s because I like what you do enough to be reading you or listening to you in the first place.
But as you consider the GOTY of 2013, try to keep that same spark of curiosity in your mind that Ryan Clements had in his Vanquish review: “Could this game use a few more badass girls?”
Brianna Wu is the founder of Giant Spacekat, a game development company specializing in cinematic experiences. She’s worked as a politico, an illustrator, and an investigative journalist. She likes running, dance music, and racing motorcycles. Find her on Twitter and App.net. For The Magazine, she wrote “Choose Your Character.”
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Corrections and clarifications
Patrick Klepek of Giant Bomb wrote me to explain that the “Biggest Surprise” podcast criteria were tailored around “games we had expectations would not be any good, but turned out the other way around.” He says Tomb Raider was excluded because they didn’t expect to like it. “[I]t’s absolutely an important game released in 2013,” he wrote.
This is absolutely fair to their intent, although the criteria are highly personal to the podcast’s presenters, of course. For me, as I noted, Tomb Raider 2013 was a huge surprise because of the narrative and portrayal, and would have met my test if I had been on the panel.
In the original version of this article, I stated my presumption that Naomi Kyle isn’t a GOTY voter at IGN. I’ve been told by multiple people that she does have a vote, despite not being an editor, regular reviewer, or permanent podcast host. My apologies for presuming, and the article has been corrected, with the correction called out. I’d love to hear about her picks in her blog.
I’ll be writing another article based on the feedback I’ve received from this one.